It was Mardi Gras in Mobile.
As a lad, Mardi Gras was Mobile, and it was only a mild exaggeration when I claimed that I did not know New Orleans had one until I was in college. Naturally, I wanted to go, wanted to join the fun and festivities, the parades and parties and such, but my people stayed home.
Some did so because Catholic celebrations with pagan underpinnings violated their Protestant sensibilities. Others heard stories of all sorts of decadent doings and stayed away.
However, I think the real reasons upcountry folks remained where they were was that they knew, instinctively if not from experience, that Mardi Gras was just one more reminder of where they were in the order of things.
And they were right.
Mardi Gras in Mobile had always been a confirmation of class, an outpouring of elitist excesses to show the lower orders who was really in charge of the city.
To be in one of the Mystic Societies, one of the Krewes, one of the groups that rode on the floats and threw out trinkets to those beneath them, you had to have connections, standing and money.
If you didn’t, all you could do was watch the parade pass you by.
That is what people from up my way did, if they bothered to go at all.
What I did not know at the time was that despite the best efforts of the upper classes to keep Carnival exclusive and elitist, a revolution of sorts was under way.
It started during World War II.
When America went to war, “riffraff … flocked in from the backwoods” to work in Mobile’s shipyards and such. Described as “the lowest type of poor whites,” Mobilians tolerated them as a wartime necessity, but that was all. “I only hope,” one local wrote, that when victory is won, “we can get rid of them.”
Only they couldn’t.
Although some jobs dried up and some were taken over by returning veterans, enough opportunity remained for those who wanted to stay in the city and become part of the rising post-war middle class.
And there is nothing a rising middle class enjoys more than displaying the evidence of their rise.
There was no better way for the nouveau Mobilians, the bourgeois Bubbas from the “backwoods,” to certify their arrival and assimilation than to become part of the city’s most celebrated show of status — Mardi Gras.
But they couldn’t. Most Mystic Societies had a waiting list loaded with the better-bred.
So they did what the up-and-coming often do when they find themselves excluded from what they wanted to join. They created their own.
Years later, a founder of one of the new associations recalled how his Mystic Society met in a pool hall, only charged $35 a year in dues and “never heard of waiting lists.”
It was the democratization of elitism.
And as the barriers came down, Mardi Gras spread.
In outlying communities with few Catholics and fewer carnival traditions, local elites organized their own Mystic Societies to confirm their status and let the good times roll in their own backyards.
While Mobile’s Mardi Gras still retained at least the tincture of tradition and elitist exclusion, copy-cat celebrations were solidly middle class. For example, the town of Chatom this year will host a parade that includes floats sponsored by S&S Cleaners and the U.S. Post Office, and includes Gordon Parmer’s 1930 Ford. Daphne will have a family-focused celebration complete with paraders from Publix, the Humane Society and Chick-Fil-A (since the event isn’t on Sunday). Prichard will have the Krewe of Goats marching through, while the Krewe of Mullet Mates will lead what is appropriately known as the “People’s Parade” in Fairhope. Foley, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach will celebrate as well.
Which, as far as I am concerned, is just great.
For folks looking for a break from the winter doldrums, an excuse to party with people not unlike themselves, Mardi Gras comes along at the right time. That communities can generate a little money in the bargain only confirms the bourgeois base on which the celebrations are built.
Meanwhile, in Mobile where it all began, as the sun sets on Fat Tuesday, the Order of Myths will march. And on the last float of this last parade, there will be Folly chasing Death around the broken Column of Life.
A reminder that the next day is Ash Wednesday, and no matter what our class or circumstance, we are mortal after all.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.